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Breast Cancer Res Treat. 1994;31(1):41-52.

Molecular mechanisms of antiestrogen action in breast cancer.

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Robert H. Lurie Cancer Center, Northwestern University Medical School, Chicago, Illinois 60611.


The success of antiestrogen therapy to treat all stages of breast cancer, and the evaluation of tamoxifen as a preventive for breast cancer in normal women, have focused attention on the molecular mechanisms of antiestrogen action and mechanisms of drug resistance. The overall goal of research is to enhance current therapies and to develop new approaches for breast cancer treatment and prevention. Recent studies show that tamoxifen and the new pure antiestrogens appear to have different mechanisms of action: tamoxifen and related compounds cause a change in the folding of the steroid binding domain that prevents gene activation whereas the pure antiestrogens cause a reduced interaction at response elements and cause a rapid loss of receptor complexes. Tamoxifen treatment produces changes in the cellular and circulating levels of growth factors that could influence both receptor negative or receptor positive tumor growth and the metastatic potential of a tumor. These events may explain the survival advantage observed with tamoxifen therapy. However, the current therapeutic challenge is to avoid drug resistance during long-term tamoxifen therapy. Numerous explanations for drug resistance to tamoxifen have been suggested, including elevated estrogen levels, increased tumor antiestrogen binding sites, receptor mutations, and impaired signal transduction. However, it is probable that multiple mechanisms evolve to facilitate tumor survival. Most importantly, current research is examining mechanisms responsible for the beneficial actions of tamoxifen on bones and lipids as well as the potentially deleterious effects of tamoxifen on liver and endometrial carcinogenesis and retinopathy. The urgent need to understand antiestrogenic drug mechanisms and toxicity is being facilitated by the application of the technology developed for basic molecular biology.

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